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Dual-heritage kids' language lessons under threat as Jyväskylä seeks savings

About 500 children study their mother tongue in Jyväskylä which offers classes in 25 different languages.

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Many schoolchildren study their own mother tongue after school. Image: Jari Kovalainen / Yle

Jyväskylä city officials have proposed a possible cut to native-language teaching that would end the extra classes for children with a home or native language other than Finnish, Swedish or Sami.

City officials have drawn up a savings list that includes the budget for native language heritage lessons, which currently cost the city some 57,000 euros. That is a small proportion of the cost of the lessons, as central government reimburses the council for more than 80 percent of the expenditure.

Almost 150 parents with a Russian background signed a petition on Monday urging the city to retain the classes.

"We understand that parents have to invest their time in teaching the language themselves, but the lessons organised by the city are a great help," said Kira Mirutenko, whose 8-year-old daughter studies Russian after school.

Kerry Garman whose seven-year-old son and five-year-old daughter attend English classes in Jyväskylä said this news came as a huge surprise.

"It is more than a class and much more of a community. My kids love it and the teachers are amazing. Yes, the children also learn English at school but it is great that they have their own lessons with those having the same level of English as they do. It’s become a really important part of our week," Garman said.

Finland requires cities to offer children 90 minutes a week of tuition in their native language, in order to retain and promote language development.

In total, about 500 children study their own mother tongue in Jyväskylä. The lessons cover 25 different languages with children split between 72 groups.

This week the All Points North podcast looked at the issue of heritage language lessons. You can listen to the full podcast via the embedded player here or via Yle Areena, Spotify, Apple Podcasts or your usual podcast player using the RSS feed.

Story continues after audio

Audio: Yle News

"Classes will benefit Finnish society"

For many foreign background residents who didn’t grow up in their home countries, these classes have been only way to impart native language training to their children.

Kambiz Ghafouri, a journalist from Iran whose 14-year-old son Mazdak Ghafouri is attending Persian language classes said he speaks Persian with his son at home but he is not a teacher and the lessons provide a different experience.

"I would like to share the literature which I enjoy, and my wife enjoys, with him," said Ghafouri. "But we cannot teach him the alphabet and the language."

According to Ghafouri, cutting the classes would make it difficult for his son to stay in touch with his Iranian roots and family back home.

"I would be really disappointed if this happens. In the long run, Finnish society will benefit from these classes because a person with strong language skills can be a bridge between cultures," Ghafuri added.

Multiple services on the chopping block

Sami Lahti, service director of Jyväskylä's basic education services, pointed out that authorities have entered all additional services offered by the city into the budget cut proposal.

"With our economic situation so weak, we can’t leave any stone unturned when it comes to savings. Since teaching one’s mother tongue is not a statutory service, the service manager has raised it to the list among many other services," Lahti said.

Other services listed include cutting spending on 'nature school' sessions, reducing the number of hours pupils receive basic education, and letting go of psychiatric nurses in student care.

Decision by end of year

On Wednesday, the local education and culture committee will meet to deliberate on the total amount they need to save. More detailed decisions on what to cut will be made in December.

"Decision-makers need to assess whether the services listed are ones that need to be retained. We have a lot of students whose mother tongue is not Finnish, so I think it would affect the lives of quite a few families. At the moment, the matter is not set in stone, but at the end of the year, we will see what course of action to take," Lahti said.

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